Big Sid Catlett was, well, big. He stood at over six feet tall and was hefty and powerfully strong. He also had showman's blood—as most great big band drummers of the 1930s and 1940s did. So much so that Benny Goodman let him go in 1941 for hamming and distracting the limelight—even though Goodman acknowledged Catlett's masterful playing on his recordings, Pound Ridge and I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good. So much for upstaging Benny.
Since we're mourning and missing Max Roach for the next bunch of days at least, I decided to re-listen to Big Sid, who was one of Max's main influences (along with Jo Jones and Chick Webb).
It's easy to see why. Catlett was one of the first melodic drummers. In addition to effortlessly laying down a steady freight-train beat, Catlett could at the same time deftly shoot out a wide range of small beats and mini beats and tiny beats and whispery rhythms. He could work the skins, hi-hat and cymbals until the drums were carrying on a seductive and forceful conversation with the listener, and live audiences went wild (more on this below).
What's fascinating about Catlett, in addition to his drumming technique, was his ability to transition from the 1930s swing era to the bebop upheaval of the mid-1940s. Coleman Hawkins, the great tenor saxophonist, did, too.
For those unfamiliar with bebop or its musical impact, think of swing as print and bebop as the Internet, and you get the picture. Bebop represented a new way of playing and thinking about music—with a a heavy emphasis on speed, complex beats and melodies, extended solos, individualism, and wry humor. Most of all, bop was about being distinct within a group and then expressing your individualism in a big way.
Bebop was a small club between 1944 and 1946, and its members were made up of a handful of musicians who understood the difficult musical language and could navigate the tricky exchanges. As bop grew in popularity, swing sounded old fashioned by contrast, and no one sounded more moldy than a swing drummer trying desperately to play creatively behind bop musicians. Catlett was one of those rare swing musicians who made the shift to bop early and naturally.
Catlett's strength and delicacy was appreciated from the start by bop's originators—Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and especially Max Roach. And Catlett had huge respect for them as well. Both Catlett and Max had played in Benny Carter's band and shared a special father-son respect for one another.
Sadly, Big Sid died of a heart attack in 1951, just as the recording industry was switching to a longer format—the 33 1/3 LP. If only Sid had been around longer to record extended solos.
Wax track: One of my favorite Catlett recordings is Hot House on the Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker Live at Town Hall,June 22, 1945 CD. If you own the CD, pull it out. If not, buy it or download the cut.
Hot House starts with Big Sid being brought up to the stage by Symphony Sid, the jazz radio disc jockey. Catlett had to leave to play a gig, so they squeezed him in with Bird and Diz, which meant Max had to give up the drums. Max does so with grace.
If you listen carefully to the audio, you'll hear Big Sid say to Max as Max passes him, leaving his drums behind, "Hell of a spot, Max, whatchu doing, man?" This is a hats off to Max (a kid at the time) from Big Sid (already an established star) in the wake of Max's brilliant performances on earlier numbers. Sid may even have embraced Max or clapped him on the back, since the audience erupts in adoring applause.
And then Sid sits in. Listen to Sid, the swing drummer, work the kit in bop style. Wow, what he does to those cymbals—and then the snare. If you listen to this recording a few times, you'll notice that Catlett does not repeat a single beat or pattern. And he even works the Hot House melody into the snare toward the end of his solo. And this is June 1945.
No wonder the audience went nuts at the end of his solo.
Wax clips: Fortunately for us, Big Sid is captured in a number of great video clips. Here are two stunners:
The first is Swingin' on Nothin' with Louis Armstrong's orchestra from 1942. Everyone's having a ball. Catlett is back there keeping time and even gets a few brief seconds on film twice (note the stick handling). That's trombonist George Washington singing with a sofa-sized Velma Middleton. Velma may have put down one of the earliest examples of break dancing here!
The second is even more incredible. It's Jammin' the Blues from 1944. I had always been familiar with the still shot of Lester Young in pork-pie hat, sitting on a stand with streams of smoke captured in mid-air. But I didn't realize it was from a film.
If you're new to this short film (as I was), you won't believe your eyes. Dig Prez and Sweets Edison and Illinois Jacquet. Here, we get a taste of Catlett's graceful and gone brush playing. Man, the guy was all style. And catch the drum switch as Catlett hands off to Papa Jo Jones—without missing a beat!!! You just know Max must have loved this film.